Last November, after the Presidential election results were in, I had hoped that we American Christians, perhaps led by my fellow Baptists, would start to rededicate ourselves to prioritize elements of our enduring faith ahead of today’s politics. I see some progress, but we have a way to go: too many of us talk and behave as if we are really Republican or Democrat first, Christian second. Ideas like “I will never again vote Republican” or “Democrats are anti-God in every way” are sinful: both political parties have many, many serious Christian members who conscientiously try their best to do God’s will. It is immoral to be unswervingly loyal to temporal human organizations that, like both the Democrat and Republican parties, welcome leaders who have no interest in serving Jesus Christ. It’s fine to register as a member of a political party and be involved in political processes, but it is wrong to insist that Christians must consistently align themselves with a political party.
The following is part of a short sermon I gave a few weeks ago, on a fascinating passage, 1 Samuel 8:4–20. I’m posting it here to explain how the Bible, which is often political, treats political systems.
“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
These are among Winston Churchill’s most famous words, from a speech he delivered to the British House of Commons in 1947. This quote is especially compelling because at that point in his career Churchill had worked and negotiated with numerous leaders around the world who were part of non-democratic governments, including monarchies, theocracies, and fascist and communist states. We can believe that Churchill knew what he was talking about because he saw many other forms up close.
The willingness to acknowledge flaws in our preferred type of government is the main idea behind 1 Samuel 8. Of course Churchill was trying to be witty, while 1 Samuel 8 is very serious. And while Churchill thought that democracy was the “least bad” form of government, the author of 1 Samuel undoubtedly believed that the “least bad” form of government was a monarchy headed by a descendant of King David. After all, 1 Sam 16:12–13 identifies David as God’s ideal choice to lead Israel, and in 2 Samuel 7:8–16 God seals the deal by promising to make David’s descendants the permanent rulers of Israel.
It’s not as if Israel had not experimented with other leadership structures. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and 1 Sam 1–7 describe other systems that had sooner or later been found wanting. One of the problems was that Israel had never established a way to choose top leaders, which created problems whenever a leader passed away. Judges 2:19, which technically references only the age of Judges, describes the entire pre-monarchic period: Israel was more or less OK when good individuals were in charge, but things could fall apart quickly during times of a transition. This is what is happening in 1 Samuel 8. According to verses 1–3, the prospective new generation of leaders, Samuel’s sons, are already corrupt, so the future is not looking bright.
Samuel’s speech is crucial because he does not merely recite cute phrases like “monarchy will be the worst form of government, except for the other forms.” Instead, he goes into detail about why a Davidic monarchy may turn out badly. The king will draft large numbers of young adults into his service, establish taxes, and even seize land and personal property. And the author of 1 Samuel is aware that this is a serious possibility, as he mostly like already knew the situation described later in 1 Kgs 12:1–15.
Samuel’s speech does not persuade his audience; the Israelites insist upon a king anyway. And we see in the words of the people the problem that will plague Israel through the rest of 1 Samuel. In verse 20 they declare their desire for a king who will “go out before us and fight our battles.” This is exactly what they get in Saul: whatever his problems, whenever Israel needs a general to lead the troops, Saul is ready. But Saul fails as a king because he is not always ready to fight for God.
Too often, Christians measure leaders and leadership structures on how well they fight our battles. But are our battles the same as those of the kingdom of God? Are the things that make us comfortable the same as those that are just and right as per the Bible?
God calls the church to preach the gospel, love others, and advance the cause of justice. God also calls his people to try to persuade their society to do the same. But God does not mandate the church structure – which we Baptists should appreciate, as we insist that each church determine its leadership structure for itself. While parts of the Old Testament favor a Davidic monarchy, the Bible as a whole does not prescribe any particular form of secular government, or even church government. Instead, God expects us to create and maintain leadership structures that foster evangelism and promote love and justice in the church and in society.
Whenever we think about leadership, whether it’s leadership in the church or leadership in secular society, let’s make sure that before we show support for a party or candidate, we’ve focused our attention squarely on love, justice, and spreading the gospel to a world that needs Jesus Christ.